Flush With Success

A cooperative water conservation program based largely on rebates for water-saving toilets places big dividends in Florida’s Broward County.
Flush With Success
Tim Welch, director of Sunrise Utilities, uses a rain barrel painted with colorful scenes to discuss water conservation methods with Sandpiper Elementary School students.

As the Sunrise (Fla.) Utilities Department worked to advance its water conservation plan among customers, Broward County proposed a more attractive alternative with broader marketing and outreach elements.

“The county collaborated with the many cities within it and formed the Broward Water Partnership’s Water Conservation and Incentives Program,” says Tim Welch, P.E., utilities director. “The program is more efficient than if each city did its own thing.”

The partnership’s five-year goal is to save 30 million gallons of water a day through rebates on water-saving toilets, distribution of free water-saving devices such as showerheads and community education.

Customers who replace their old toilets with U.S. EPA-approved WaterSense high-efficiency toilets (HET) using 1.28 gallons per flush (gpf) are eligible for a $100 rebate for up to two toilets. Nonprofits and businesses may also participate. Since October 2011, the partnership has distributed more than $266,000 in rebates, equating to nearly 260 million gallons of water saved.

Strength in numbers

Broward County, population 1.8 million, is the second-most populous county in the state and the 18th largest in the country. Sunrise Utilities operates three water treatment plants that draw from the Biscayne Aquifer.

To calculate how much water the conservation program is saving, the county used census data. It showed that 69 percent of homes were built before 1980 (toilets in these homes were assumed to use 5 gpf) and 31 percent were built after (these were assumed to use 3.5 gpf). The census placed average household size at 2.59 inhabitants. Based on literature from the South Florida Water Management District, the regional water regulator, each person flushes 5.1 times per day.

Welch learned of the water conservation program while attending a monthly meeting of the Water Advisory Board Technical Advisory Committee with two dozen other municipalities. “We have a sensitive regional water supply and welcomed a better way to promote water conservation throughout our service area,” says Welch. Sunrise also supplies water to the cities of Weston, Davie and Southwest Ranches.

While some municipalities signed onto the county program but rejected rebates, 19 cities fully adopted it. They signed a contract, agreeing to finance the rebates and distribute prerinse spray valves for commercial food service providers, low-flow water faucet aerators, and water-efficient showerheads. Those devices are not part of the water-saved equation.

Sunrise Utilities’ water conservation account annually invests tens of thousands of dollars toward conservation. Water and sewer revenues from 200,000 customers fund it. In 2013, the rebate program cost $85,000.

How it works

Only Sunrise Utilities customers qualify for the program. After the county approves the purchase of WaterSense-certified HETs, applicants must provide proof of purchase and validate installation. Households are eligible for two rebates, while commercial, nonprofit and multi-family establishments qualify on an individual basis.

The county purchases the other water-saving devices, delivering them to the utilities’ administration buildings where customers pick them up. They must bring a copy of their water bill and photo identification and surrender their old showerhead before qualifying for new ones. “We ration all the devices, giving one or two per customer,” says Welch. “The response to this portion of the program and the rebates has been outstanding.”

The second half of the water conservation effort invites customers to become media partners by spreading the word to other residents about the rebates and free devices. “It’s working very well,” says Welch. “People tell us they heard about the program from neighbors and friends. Broward County also tracks the campaign through a questionnaire customers complete when they validate their rebates.”

Welch sees the program as an opportunity for operators to discuss with customers the importance of conserving water, and what it costs to guarantee that quality water comes out when they open the tap. “People are often surprised when their utility bills increase,” says Welch. “But the cost of water and the scarcity of it in certain regions are becoming bigger concerns. Operators may be the best candidates to educate the public about them.”

Starting young

The utility also conducts plant tours for elementary, middle and high school students. After seeing the magnitude of equipment and what it takes to operate and sustain a facility, they gain a real feel for operating expenses. Welch’s operators emphasize that monthly water bills enable the utility to purchase $5 million of electric power annually, buy hundreds of thousands of dollars of chemicals, and spend millions on plant expansions to guarantee reliable, safe drinking water.

“I believe the students understand the message that we don’t have a choice,” says Welch. “We can’t afford mistakes. We have to be right every time, and that costs money.”

Other utility outreach efforts include taking part in 20 to 25 Career Days at district elementary schools. Besides talking about water conservation, the water cycle and the use of rain barrels, Welch encourages youngsters to tell their parents about the rebates and water-saving devices.

The utility also takes part in Earth Day and the county’s Water Matters Day. “We invite children to paint colorful scenes on a rain barrel, and then schools compete to win it,” says Welch. “Delivering the prize to the classroom gives us an additional opportunity to discuss water conservation methods.”

Utility workers save water by conducting meter calibrations, detecting leaks and monitoring check valves. The department typically accounts for 93 percent of the water it produces. During summer, an ordinance restricts residential irrigation to twice a week. The utility also takes part in the county’s NatureScape program, which analyzes irrigation systems and optimizes their efficiency. “They make sure our sprinkler heads are working properly, the piping isn’t leaking and we’re not over watering,” says Welch.

Model for success

For utilities debating whether to begin a conservation program on their own or do it as a collaborative effort, Welch recommends the latter: “A consortium enables members to share expenses and hire a marketing consultant to manage the media outreach campaign. It’s easier to learn from the successes and failures of others: how to organize, locate the equipment, provide the communication and process all the requests and rebates.”

While individual utilities can qualify for incentives and grants, they could receive larger grants collectively. “Broward County has received grants on behalf of this program, and funds are coming back to the cities,” says Welch. “That is one big benefit of working together. Another is the amount of documentation available for adoption. If it’s all done for you, why not use it?”


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